Quite frankly, I am in love with artichokes. They are so beautiful to look at that I am prone to putting them in vases and then capturing them on paper in watercolours. While I adore their thistle-like beauty, it is their complex flavour and texture that I really love. Artichoke hearts are dense and velvety, and their green flavour profile sits somewhere between a mushroomy broccoli stalk with a hint of asparagus. When they come into their season in spring - I just want to eat them every single day.
A couple of years ago, when Mr K and I were in Rome on a hot spring day, we found ourselves enjoying a simply magical lunch of 'carciofi alla guida' - deep-fried whole artichokes - eaten hot, doused with big squeezes of lemon and washed down with a very, very chilled acidic local white wine. We often find ourselves reminiscing about just how good those artichokes were (you can read more about them here).
The love of the artichoke spreads far and wide through the Mediterranean. When travelling in Provence, we have bought huge bouquets of small purple artichokes at the spring markets and cooked them simply in a heavy pot with local white wine, lots of big juicy chunks of tomato, local olive oil, a sprinkling thyme or herbs de Provence and loads of garlic (you can find the recipe here).
In Greece, the artichoke is also very, very well loved. Being a spring time favourite, it is often paired with spring lamb and broad beans and plenty of lemon (find the recipe here). Lemon is also the key flavour in the classic Greek dish Aginares a la Polita or Artichokes City-Style where artichokes are slowly cooked in an oil and lemon sauce with lots of dill, carrots (which mimic the sweetness of the artichoke) and potatoes (find the recipe here). Another favourite is to stew artichoke heats with lots of peas, broad beans and onions.
I love all of these artichoke dishes, but one that holds a real place in my heart is my mother in law's stuffed artichokes. It is one of the first dishes that she ever cooked for me and I can still remember what a revelation it was. I had eaten artichokes growing up - my grandfather used to grow them occasionally in his terraced vegetable garden that caught the sea breezes from North Cronulla Beach - in the days when Cronulla was a seaside village and not overrun with apartment blocks.
Before she passed away, my grandmother had told me many stories of life in wartime Sydney. She recalled how important home vegetable gardens were, during times of rationing and recounted her own father's vegetable garden in 1940s Cronulla and her grandfather's wartime vegetable garden in Wentworth Falls. Nana's recipe clipping book, an old school exercise book with faded grid paper, has two recipe clippings from wartime cookery pamphlet for globe artichokes.
The first said:
Artichokes are cooked in the following way. Peel and boil until tender, them strain and roll in a mixture of breadcrumbs and chopped parsley. Fry quickly in deep fat and serve at once.
The second clipping said:
...To prepare, remove all the hard outer leaves. Cut off the top of the bud. Drop the artichoke into boiling water and cook until tender, this will take thirty to fifty minutes, then take up and remove the choko. Serve either hot or cold with salad dressing. If eaten hot, melted margarine also makes a delicious sauce...
|My great grandafter's wartime garden in Wenthworth Falls|
While I had nibbled on home-grown simply boiled artichokes, I had never eaten anything like Ma's stuffed artichokes. She had carefully removed the really tough outer leaves and the spiky purple inner leaves and what she calls 'the lint' to create a 'cup' for rice that had drawn in all of that green herbaceous flavour from the artichoke and was spiked with garlic, hot chili, sweet tomatoes and the aniseed flavour of dill. A rich layer of Greek olive oil (from her family trees in Zakynthos) bought all of these flavours together and then there was the melting texture of the odd broad bean - some still in the pod, which had been thrown in for good 'springtime' measure. Most importantly, you could taste the love and care that Ma had put into creating this meal - and certainly her respect for such beautiful springtime produce.
|Ma and I talking food in the garden|
Ma shared the recipe with me recently while we were sitting in her garden, under the dappled shade of the mulberry tree, and talking food. Greek food is so seasonal and linked to health. Ma is a firm believer that the seasons provide exactly what the body needs and she was keen to ensure that I had moved from cooking 'winter fuel' - hearty bean soups and legume casseroles to start making lighter springtime dishes like lamb fricassee cooked with spring greens and egg-lemon sauce, wild greens pies, simple broad bean dishes and of course, her beloved stuffed artichokes.
I love watching Ma when she talks about food. Her eyes twinkle and she animatedley mimes each step of the recipe for me while I make mental notes and write it down. Each steps is punctuated with 'katalava?' - do you understand. I nod and usually say 'katalaveno' - I understand and Ma helps me practice saying all of the Greek names for the ingredients and methods in the recipe. I love these little moments with Ma. While we were talking, Mr K was bouncing through his dad's garden - listening to us and loudly offering a little translation here and there - jumping from Greek to English and English to Greek without missing a beat, while he plucked small tender broad beans from the the tall rows my father in law had planted - some went into a box and some into his mouth. He also picked big bunches of radiki and other spring greens and then washed them all under the garden hose for his mum. "He is a good boy" Ma said with her twinkling eyes and I happily agreed.
Ma's artichokes stuffed with rice and herbs
(Αγκινάρες γεμιστές με ρύζι)
8 fresh artichokes
1 red onion, finely chopped or grated
1 & 1/2 cups of Greek carolina rice
1 bunch of dill, finely chopped
2 ripe fresh tomatoes, grated
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 cup of olive oil
salt and pepper
Dried chili flakes, or whole dried chili pepper, to taste (optional)
Fresh broad beans and some podded and small ones left in the pod (optional)
1 bowl of water, with the juice of 1 lemon squeezed in for preparing the artichokes
Step 1. Peel the artichokes and remove the hard outer leaves and stalks, so that the base is flat. Gently prise the artichoke open and remove the inner purple leaves and the 'lint', creating a cup for the rice. Place the prepare artichokes in the bowl of lemon water to stop them going brown.
Step 2. Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a frypan and add the chopped onion. Saute for a few minutes until translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and the rice. Stir to coat all the grains of rice in the garlic-onion oil. Cook for a few minutes and then add the tomatoes, dill, salt, pepper and chili (if using). Mix again. Remove from heat.
Step 3. Place the artichokes in a pot, so that they sit upright closely together and fill each artichoke with the rice mixture. Fill the pot with water, to just under the tops of the artichokes and sprinkle over remaining oil. You can also add some more grated tomato at this point too, if you wish. You could also add the broad beans to at this point, if you wish. Cover the pot and let it simmer on a low heat until the artichokes are tender and the rice is completely cooked, around 45 mins to an hour. All of the water should also cook out, so that you are left with a thick sauce.